Busy With
The Blitz-Proofing

by Carl Zebrowski

America was plunged into a panic in December 1941. The whole country wondered what would happen next. Might the Japanese bomb Los Angeles or San Francisco? Or might they or the Germans come from the other direction and bombard the most densely populated city in the world, New York? No one knew for sure. "I lived in Clinton [New York] during World War II," Barbara Williams Roberts wrote at the website www.clintonhistory.org. "It was scary. I was still in grade school and I remember hearing an airplane and looking up to see what it was. I think I expected the Japanese to bomb Clinton."

US leaders in Washington, DC, already had plenty on their minds. They didn’t have time to prepare for the highly unlikely event of a large-scale enemy attack on American neighborhoods. Their solution to easing the justifiable fears of the people was a stroke of genius: let the people defend themselves. That way, no precious resources would have to be diverted from essential military operations, and the people at home would feel not only safer, but also more involved in a war that they themselves were not actually fighting.

The US Office of Civilian Defense, established in May 1941 as the war spread across the globe, was responsible for coordinating preparations for war-related emergencies, preparations that were organized at the state and local levels. The civilian defense against air attacks began with pilots who flew along the coastlines and plane spotters who manned towers to watch for approaching enemy planes. There were also blackout drills that forced people to practice their response to the air-raid alarm signal—a series of intermittent siren blasts. Air-raid wardens supervised the blackout drills, cruising up and down neighborhood streets to make sure no light escaped the houses. By early 1943, there were about 6 million volunteers in public protection roles such as air-raid warden.

Blackout drills were planned in advance and advertised. Street lights were turned off at the scheduled time. Anyone outside was to take cover inside. Those in their homes were instructed to pull down the blinds on their windows and keep the light inside to a minimum. People in cars were to pull over and find shelter in the nearest building. The idea was that enemy planes couldn’t target what they couldn’t see, and that any light visible from above could attract bombs and gunfire.

The federal government sponsored public service announcements to promote participation in the drills and make sure people knew what to do. Among the more unusual of these promotions was the 1942 song by Tony Pastor and his Orchestra "Obey Your Air Raid Warden," which instructed listeners, "Don’t get in a huff/Our aim today is to call their bluff./Follow these rules and that is enough./Obey your air-raid warden." Posters were more common. One flyer pictured the emergency supplies every household was supposed to keep: 50 feet of garden hose with a spray nozzle, 100 pounds of sand divvied into four containers, three three-gallon metal buckets (one filled with sand and two with water), a long-handled shovel with a square edge, a hoe or rake, an ax or hatchet, a ladder, leather gloves, and dark glasses.

Technically, people who didn’t comply with the blackout orders and keep the required supplies on hand could be arrested, though arrests on these grounds were rare. On his education website, the Doyle Report, Denis P. Doyle, who was a young child during the war whose father was in the service overseas, noted several things he remembered from the WWII days. "My most vivid single memory, however, was the visit of a helmeted air raid warden to our apartment in Shaker Heights, Ohio," Doyle wrote. "My mother was out for the evening and our grandmother was caring for my little sister and me. She spoke not a word of English. A knock on the door announced an air raid warden trying to explain that an air raid drill was underway and she must either turn off all the lights or lower the curtains. At three years of age, it fell to me to translate and we pulled down the living room shades."

Some books cite accounts of enemy plane attacks in various locations across the US mainland, but whether any such incidents actually happened is hard to confirm. No plane spotter ever saw an enemy plane. There were many false alarms however, and many unnecessary blackouts. Still, the air-raid defense effort had to be considered a success. Americans appreciated being asked to take responsibility for protecting themselves, and the opportunity to participate directly in the war effort boosted their morale—which was really the goal in the first place.

Carl Zebrowski is the managing editor and website editor of America in WWII. This article appeared in the October 2005 issue of the magazine. Order a copy of this issue now.


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